That is the premise of Free Wheelchair Mission, an Irvine, Calif.-based nonprofit that raises money to send low-cost, highly effective wheelchairs to people in developing countries with the greatest need.
Western University of Health Sciences Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) students, part of the College of Allied Health Professions, raised enough money to buy more than 130 wheelchairs.
Second-year DPT student Omid Kajbaf, DPT ’13, sparked his classmates’ interest in the charitable organization last year, and was one of five DPT students to raise money for the cause and run in the Surf City USA Marathon in Huntington Beach, Calif. The students raised enough money to buy 47 wheelchairs, which is also the same number of students in their DPT class.
The profession fits well with the cause because physical therapists help others with mobility, Kajbaf said.
“By jumping into something like this, we can start that before we even graduate,” he said. “We are already helping people become more mobile while we’re still in school.”
This year, Kajbaf reached out to WesternU’s Physical Therapy Advocacy Club, raising enough money to buy 85 wheelchairs. They again participated in the Surf City USA Marathon on Feb. 5, 2012. Kajbaf hopes to expand the program to the entire WesternU campus next year.
The students’ enthusiasm for the cause is applauded by Free Wheelchair Mission Founder and President Don Schoendorfer, who visited WesternU on Feb. 2, 2012.
Free Wheelchair Mission, founded in 2001, works around the world in partnership with a vast network of humanitarian, faith-based and government organizations, sending wheelchairs to hundreds of thousands of disabled people, providing not only the gift of mobility, but of dignity, independence, and hope, according to the FWM website.
Schoendorfer, a mechanical engineer and inventor by trade, designed a low-cost wheelchair made with a resin lawn chair and bicycle wheels in a custom steel frame. A second-generation design is available in several widths and can accommodate a variety of users. Each wheelchair costs $63.94 to build and ship.
Free Wheelchair Mission estimates 100 million people need a wheelchair but cannot afford one. The organization has provided more than 630,000 wheelchairs to people living with debilitating illnesses and injuries in 84 countries. The goal is to give away 20 million wheelchairs, Schoendorfer said.
Schoendorfer described to WesternU students his experiences in India and South America, where people crawled on the ground or were carried by loved ones for miles to receive a wheelchair. When placed in a wheelchair for the first time, their smiles of gratitude transcended any language barriers.
He appreciates the expertise that WesternU students bring to the table, and is humble about his own knowledge of medical needs.
“The people in the audience know a lot more about what I should be doing than I do,” Schoendorfer said. “To have them share their enthusiasm with me is affirming for me.”
WesternU students who advocate for the Free Wheelchair Mission bring the respect of their profession.
“With your credibility as a physical therapist, if you were to tell people there’s this organization that gives away wheelchairs in the developing world for $64 and they’re functional, durable, useful chairs, people will want to help us,” Schoendorfer said. “One of the best things you can do for us is figure out how to communicate for us.”